Why did the deer cross the road?

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I just returned from a visit to my parents in New England.  Whenever I visit I always have grand plans, which inevitably get waylaid by other things.  Everything takes longer.  I left for home about an hour after I had hoped, so I drove the five hours without a stop.  About 20 miles from home I spied three deer by the side of the road preparing to cross.  This was not make way for ducklings.  When a deer wants to cross the road you had better stop or get out of the way.  The good news is that I was not on a high speed road so I was able to stop with a few feet to spare as the second deer moved in front of my car.  The car coming from the other direction saw them later than I did and came to a screeching halt.  Neither of us hit the deer, who calmly and deliberately crossed the road.  I pulled off to the side of the road to catch my breath before continuing.  This was not the first time I had encountered a deer on the road.

Why do deer cross the road?  The simplest explanation is that they have family members on the other side they want to reunite with, or maybe a soft place to bed down, or dinner.  Deer are even less savvy than dogs about the street.  They fail to see the danger signs of headlights and big steel things on wheels barreling towards them.  If they are lucky they make it across unscathed.  The second best outcome is to get hit head on and have a clean and instant death.  Other consequences . . . I don’t like to think about it.

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Sometimes I think that life is like a deer crossing the road.   We should know better about who to marry or what job to take, or how to have a productive conversation.  But we don’t.  We make wildly bad decisions and go left instead of right.  We make u-turns and about faces.  We yell at our children and mutter under our breaths at our bosses.  Worse yet we make bad investment decisions and buy things we know we can’t afford and eat what we shouldn’t.    We have high blood pressure and stress and debt and family members who don’t talk to us and unfinished work at the office.

We are humans, which means we are capable of logical thinking.  Why then do we get it wrong so much?  Why do we, like the deer, wander into the road and risk getting hit?  Even worse, after we get hit, we wander back and do it all over again.  We get so  many chances in life to get it right and yet we keep getting it wrong.  The advantage we have over the deer is that these decisions aren’t usually about life and death.  We eat fried food, it’s ok, we pop another pill.  We make excuses to ourselves and to the doctor.  We run up the credit card bill, alright, we’ll do better next month.  It’s not instant death like the deer, but more like the death of a thousand cuts.  It continues until that one fateful day when our spouse walks out on us or the collection agency is at our door, or we end up in the hospital on the operating table.  After these colossal disasters we try to put our lives back together.  Sometimes we succeed and sometimes it ends poorly.  Like the deer, we get hit and we get hit hard.

Unlike the deer, we have the ability to recover.  We can modify our behavior.  We can start eating salads with low fat dressing instead of ranch.  Steve, this one is for you!  Steve is my brother-in-law and a doctor.  We can go into couples counseling or meet with a divorce lawyer.  We can cut up our credit cards and get financial counseling.  The first step is to accept that something is wrong.  We took the wrong turn and to avoid a future run-in with a truck we need to do things differently.  The deer can’t make changes.  Deers operate on instinct.  They look for food and shelter and family.   They don’t stop at the edge of the road and think about their options.

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Do we operate on instinct?  When we head for the refrigerator during the commercial, is that a rational thought or a learned habit?  Is it logical to have the same fight over and over with our wife or workmate?  Do we show our humanity when we go to the online gambling site instead of paying the mortgage?  How do we get ourselves into these messes and why it is to hard to get out?  If we don’t know how to make that right turn on our own, how is it that we can’t seek help?  Does being human mean that  we are perpetually heading in the wrong direction?  Like the deer, will we all eventually end up crossing the road and hoping for the best?  Are we destined to become roadkill?

I hit a deer once at high speed and killed it.  That was the only good news.  I didn’t think about the car — which was a rental, or myself, or the botched plans to get to my destination across three states by dinner time.  All I could think about was how I had ended a life prematurely.  I was grateful it was quick, but shaken over what I had done.  Then I did something really stupid.  I kept driving.  I neglected the signs of damage to the car.  I forgot that the deer had likely totaled the car.  I drove until the car came to a stop miles away from help, and then I waited by the side of the road in the summer heat for over two hours waiting for the tow truck.   I had a near meltdown at the Pittsburgh Airport after the towing company dropped me off, not realizing that I was so dehydrated I was no longer thinking straight.   I hadn’t been drinking enough water because there’s no place to relieve yourself at the side of a major highway.  The lovely woman at the Avis counter handed me a bottle of water and suggested I sit down while they got me another car.   A new rental, a good night’s sleep and a meal later I continued on my journey.

Why had I crossed the road again after being hit?  In retrospect it was illogical and foolhardy.  At the time it seemed immensely rational.  The car had plenty of gas, it started and moved despite the crack in the grill.  I was late and needed to pick up lost time.  Now I know what I should have done.  I should have turned around and headed back to my destination and get a new car.  I thought I could overcome immense obstacles by sheer will.  I could not resist the impulse to  tough it out and push on.

The deer are stupid too.  They walk towards their death without flinching.  We head to the edge of the cliff and are saved to live another day.  We can’t help the deer, but we can help ourselves.  We can learn to become more patient and be more disciplined and think about consequences.  We can take the long view and resist the designer handbag in favor of sending our daughter to college.  We can give up fast food in favor of growing old and seeing our grandchildren.  For the deer it’s a roll of the dice.

After my return home we went out to have a beer and a bite at our favorite craft beer place.  On the way back I reminded my husband to drive slowly because of deer.  About a mile from our house a group of five deer crossed the road.  We saw them and stopped, counting them as they sauntered in front of us.  They all got across unscathed.  They survived to live another day and so did we.   Our fates were tied together, the deer acting on instinct, and us alert to their behavior.  We thought ahead and understood the danger.  Every day our lives are filled with decisions.  The challenge is to act less like the deer.  Our chances for survival improve when we use our rational brain and take the long view.

I came across a book that looks at this conundrum as I was writing this blog.  It’s called “Decisive:  How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.  I’m including a link to their website if you want to learn more about their process for making better decisions Decisive.   Another book I really like and have read is “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.  Read more about it at this link The Power of Habit.  It explores how we form habits and can change them.    I’ll continue to keep my eyes peeled for deer crossing the road.  I hope you do too.

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